A Lawyer’s Secret To A Happy Life

I’m going to tell you the secret to a happy life.  It’s not the secret to an easy life or a prosperous life, only a happy life.   The secret isn’t going to make you better looking, it won’t cure disease, and it won’t make you younger.  The only thing it will do is help you find happiness.

Key to HappinessMaybe it’s not a secret at all, but something that a lot of people already know. Some people appear to be born knowing it.  Others of us, probably a majority, take years to figure it out. I suspect that a significant number never figure it out, which is a shame. Life is a short one-way journey.

Happiness requires nothing more than a sheet of paper, a pencil, and willingness to commit five minutes per day. The secret to happiness is the product of the work of psychologist Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage.  What he proposes is that every day you take a few minutes and write down three new  things that you’re grateful for.  Do this for 21 days, and he claims your happiness will increase.

A few years ago I saw a TED Talk with Shawn Achor on Youtube. I have a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and I thought what he proposed sound interesting, so I decided to try it.  At the time, I was going through a lot of changes and my life seemed to have turned into a series of frustrating challenges that were getting less fun every day.  I figured this couldn’t hurt, so I got a journal and every night before bed I wrote down three things that I was grateful for that happened during my day.  The first couple days were challenging and I had a hard time coming up with things.  After a few days, I started looking for and making note of good things that were happening so I could have something to write down when it came time to make my list for the day.  This is really where the important change happened.  I started paying attention to the good things and not just to the problems that demanded my attention.  Nothing else in my life changed.  I had as many problems and challenges as I did before, but they didn’t seem as all encompassing.  The good things I was taking the time to notice were becoming bigger than the headaches and imperfections that are an inevitable part of our lives.  My happiness increased.Happy people's portraits

I often think about this little experiment in my life and the lessons that I learned.  First, gratitude is the foundation of happiness.  No gratitude means no happiness. Also, we find what we expect in the world.  If you expect misery, there is much to be found.  On the other hand, if you seek good things, they’re there too, even in the most difficult of situations. It’s all about what we pay attention to and we can chose where we focus our attention.

United States Supreme Court – A Court Diminished

David Abrams in front of the US Supreme Court
David Abrams in front of the US Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court, once the most prestigious court in the world, has been reduced to a politically gerrymandered court by the Republican Senators’ refusal to even review President Obama’s nominee and Donald Trump’s pledge to pack the Court with political ideologues, guaranteeing rulings he sees as politically beneficial. Trump will have little difficulty keeping his promise given the Republican majority in the Senate.  I do not expect the Court will recover from this harm within the remainder of my legal career or lifetime.

The framers of the Constitution envisioned a Court that would be as insulted as possible from the political process. The first and most famous case ever decided by the Court, Marbury vs. Madison, was rooted in the idea that the Court is immune from political restructuring. The Court rejected an expansion of its jurisdiction by Congress through the political process and held that jurisdiction of the United States Supreme Court is established by the Constitution.  The Court’s authority, like the Court itself, is beyond the political process.  Judges do not serve at the pleasure of the President or Congress; they have lifetime appointments.  This principle of law has been incredibly important in American jurisprudence.  Neither Congress nor the President can remove or expand the Court’s jurisdiction in response to the political winds of the time, nor can they retaliate against a Judge or the Court for rendering a politically unfavorable decision.

The role of the Court in protecting the freedoms of and ensuring justice for the American people cannot understated.  Removing bigotry, prejudice, and injustice from American law has rarely been achievable through the ballot.  Desegregation, repeal of miscegenation laws, removal of literacy tests for voting, privacy rights, the right of counsel for people accused of crimes, the right to be free from unlawful search and seizure, the right of married couples to use birth control, and the right for same sex marriage were all achieved at the Supreme Court and would have all failed if put to a vote.  Strict textualists, such as former Justice Scalia and those whom I expect Trump will nominate, insist that rights which are not explicitly stated in the Constitution do not exist.  They disagree with the perspective of Justice Douglas who wrote that the “specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance” Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 484 (June 7, 1965). In simpler language, there are rights that are not explicitly stated, but are implied in the text, such as the right for a parent to raise and educate a child, including sending a child to a religious school rather than a public secular school.

American flag, US constitution and a judge's gavel symbolizing the American justice system or the Judicial Branch of government ( Judiciary )That the Constitution and the Supreme Court allow rights to develop in response to our collective experience rather than through the nearly impossible political process of Constitutional amendment is one of the great strengths in our legal system and has allowed our nation to remain a leader in human rights. As Alan Dershowitz postulates in his book “Rights from Wrongs: A Secular Theory of the Origins of Rights”, human rights do not come from G-d, or nature, or even from logic.  Instead, they come “from human experience, particularly experience with injustice.  We learn from the mistakes of history that a rights-based system and certain fundamental rights…are essential to avoid repetition of the grievous injustices of the past.”  In other words, rights come from wrongs and are recognition of those wrongs. A great example of this is found in the Constitution itself where the framers included a right contained in the Third Amendment prohibiting the government from forcing people to quarter troops in their homes during peacetime.  This is not a right most of us would consider putting into the Constitution if we were writing it today.  Indeed, there has never been a Third Amendment case brought to the Supreme Court.  This Amendment exists as a relic of the experience of the framers and their fears based upon that experience.

Sadly, I greatly fear that the era of the Court standing between the people and the government as a neutral arbiter of the rights secured by the Constitution is over.  For the first time in our history we may see the United States Supreme Court moving in reverse where, rather than finding emerging rights, the Court will remove existing rights from the people.  More importantly perhaps, I fear that, due to the political games that have been played by the Republicans in the appointment process, the United States Supreme Court has lost the moral authority and diversity of thought it once possessed.  The Constitutional vision has been undermined and unfortunately the Court, and likely the American people, will suffer.

President Donald Trump….A Tempest Released?

On election night I posted a statement on facebook that said “I now know what January 30, 1933 was like.” This was a reference to the date when Adolf Hitler first came to power in Germany.  Some people questioned my reasons for making the statement.  This blog post gives more of the reasoning behind my concerns and feelings.  

For Many The Campaign Watch Party Turned Into a Frightening Upset, but is there really a need for concern?
For Many The Campaign Watch Party Turned Into a Frightening Upset, but is there really a need for concern?

Are the implications of the recent election as bad as many are saying?  I think the answer is that the implications are worse than most Americans have ever imagined.  We are facing a social, political, and economic perfect storm that I truly believe has the potential to bring genocide to the United States.

While Donald Trump has certainly fanned and exploited the flames of discontent among rural white voters, he is hardly the cause of their distress.  For more than a generation the American middle class, especially those who worked in manufacturing and are not college educated, have been losing ground and in the process losing hope and purpose. Meanwhile, there has also arisen a fetishistic gun culture that no longer sees firearms as hunting tools, but as symbols of power and security with a special focus on near military grade weaponry.  This gun fetish has been reinforced and made more dangerous by those who claim a nonexistent constitutional right to resist governmental authority through armed rebellion shrouded in claims of patriotism.

Over 1,000 anti-government militia groups are operating in the United States today
Over 1,000 anti-government militia groups are operating in the United States today

This false idea of a right to armed resistance against our own government has permeated conservative culture and given rise to militia groups who are actively training for war against their fellow Americans.  According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Since 2008 antigovernment militias have grown rapidly in the United States and now number nearly 1,000 different groups that are armed, actively training, and just waiting for an excuse to start shooting people. It is only a matter of time until these groups find their cause for violence.  Just days before the election we saw the jury trial and acquittal of armed members of the Bundy miliita who occupied federal lands at gun-point, and who had previously engaged in an armed show-down with federal agents who were trying to execute a judicial order.  Thus, it appears that armed resistance to the rule of law in the United States has become acceptable.

For decades, the conservative call has been that America cannot reach it’s true potential due to liberals, democrats, immigrants and those who refuse to work, but want to rely upon government handouts.  This message has morphed into an increasingly intolerant message of bigotry, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia that captures all but the conservative white Christian community.

It was these emotions, insecurities, and prejudices that Donald Trump tapped into during a campaign that resembled more of a reality television show than a competition of ideas envisioned by the founding fathers.  By insulting and humiliating the established politicians, by ignoring truth for the sake of maintaining a narrative, he mobilized the forgotten and angry in our nation.

The Republican Party Now Holds Overwhelming Influence on All 3 Branches of Government
The Republican Party Now Holds Overwhelming Influence on All 3 Branches of Government

To understand the full implications of this election, it is important to look beyond the presidency (Executive branch) and it impact upon the legislative and judicial branches.  It is my impression that people often view the president as all powerful, while ignoring the greater power and authority given to the legislative branch. After all, it is the legislative branch that passes laws, determines the budget, raises and lowers taxes.  The current election has delivered a government where the Presidency and the legislative branch (House and Senate) are Republican controlled.   There is no Democratic majority anywhere in government to force compromise. Furthermore, with one vacant Supreme Court seat, and more expected, there is an expectation that the Supreme Court will be packed with young highly conservative Judges who will impact American jurisprudence for decades to come.

This is where the danger lies.  No political party can deliver nirvana no matter how unrestrained it can operate.  This is one reason dictatorships so easily slide into genocide, they need a scapegoat.   Additionally, Donald Trump cannot possibly remedy the distress of the disappearing middle class and make good on his promise to return jobs to America.  Granted, he might persuade some manufacturing operations to return to the United States, especially if he removes environmental protections and gives them a free tax ride, but that’s not going to create jobs because manufacturing, which is increasingly robotized, no longer creates many jobs.

This gets to the actual crisis that we’re facing and why things can go so badly.  The threat to the American middle class is not foreign labor, it’s technology which is automating jobs out of existence at an ever-accelerating rate.  We can see this in just about every industry: the website airline check-in that displaces the airline counter employee; the self-checkout at the store that

Loss of working-class opportunities leaves many angry and disillusioned.
Loss of working-class opportunities leaves many angry and disillusioned.

displaces the cashier; the device on the restaurant table that lets you order food that displaces wait staff; intelligent farm equipment that displaces agricultural workers; the ATM and bank websites that displace bank employees; and e-readers that displace printers and bookstores. The future for employment looks even more bleak as we watch the development of self-driving vehicles which will displace truck and taxi drivers.  Technology is even being developed that will eventually lead to robotic surgery.

Understand, when jobs go the impact is much greater than loss of a paycheck.  For working-class Americans jobs are identity, they give meaning and purpose to our lives.  Employment provides opportunities for social engagement and create a sense of being valued.  We often hear the phrase that we should be “a contributing member of society”, which means, securing employment.  The identity of middle class American is that of a worker.

So, what happens when Trump is unable to deliver the nirvana that he has repeatedly promised in his campaign rhetoric?  What happens when not only doesn’t he deliver, but things continue to get worse for the middle class? What then?

I think we saw the answer in the campaign, Trump will find a scapegoat to vilify.  There will be a group, or number of groups who will be blamed for the unsolved problems.  There will be no “the buck stops here”, instead it will be tried and true conservative refrain of “Everything will be great except for those people”, and the vilification will begin. We saw Trump go to this time and time again during the campaign as he vilified groups such as calling Mexicans rapists, denouncing a respected Federal Judge of Mexican heritage, he spoke of banning Muslim immigration, he mocked the disabled,  he bragged about sexually assaulting women, and he ended his campaign with a profoundly antisemitic advertisement.  Short of a Willie Horton ad, he left no stone of bigotry unturned. I have no reason to believe that he won’t repeat his xenophobic scapegoating when the going gets tough during his presidency, which will inevitably happen.

Domestic ViolenceThe increasing economic inequality, along with the vilification of whatever group is chosen by Trump and other Republican leaders, the proliferation of militias and military style weaponry, and the decline in the rule of law are setting the stage for a genocide that could be both massive in size and scope while also destroying the fabric and integrity of the nation for generations to come.  It is only a matter of time before hateful rhetoric, anger, ineffective government, and access to weapons designed for killing people results in mass violence and social chaos. Moreover, there will be little government incentive to stop it because the excess population of displaced workers will have no economic value to the nation and the victims are likely to be political opponents of the oligarchy power structure.

I’m sure there are those who read this who will write me off as simply a disgruntled liberal.  Maybe history will prove them right.  I hope so.  However, I would remind you that so many who died during the Holocaust did so believing such a thing was impossible in Germany, a nation with a strong history of rule of law, education, and philosophy.  Like the United States today, Germany was faced with massive economic disruption and an ineffective government that was defined by strife rather than action.  The German middle class was disappearing and the people chose a political outsider who appealed to prejudice and nationalistic patriotism.   In the United States today, the stage has been set for a repeat of history and we can only hope it takes a different course.  Of course, the future remains unwritten, but there are storm clouds brewing in our nation and the problem is, if we follow the path of history, there may not be time and opportunity to find a safe haven.

The Murder of Dan Markel: A World Destoryed

FSU Law Professor Dan Markel
FSU Law Professor Dan Markel

A reporter called me after I returned home from the final service on Rosh Hashanah.  He asked me, as synagogue president, to comment on the plea agreement entered into by one of the suspects in the murder of Dan Markel.  I was speechless.  I knew nothing of the plea agreement or of the most recent developments in Tallahassee’s highest profile murder case. I’d spent the past two days inside the synagogue where Dan Markel used to bring his two young sons for Saturday morning services, so I missed the news.  Gathering my wits, I told the reporter that I wasn’t aware of the plea agreement, so he told me about the plea and asked me to comment.  “I didn’t really know Dan” I explained, which was true. Despite seeing him at synagogue services with his two sons on a regular basis we never connected, and the few times I tried to have conversations with him were utter failures.  The phone call ended in what I’m sure was disappointment for the reporter.  There wasn’t anything that I could add to the news story.

When I hung up the phone I was struck by the irony of this happening on one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar. Although I barely knew him, it was apparent to me that Judaism was very important to Dan Markel.  I remembered a time when Dan and Wendy came to the synagogue together with their two baby boys and how they appeared to be an ideal couple.  I wondered what happened to bring such tragedy into their lives.

Although we never became close friends, I did know his ex-wife, Wendy Adelson, better than I knew Dan Markel.  Wendy invited me to talk to her class at the law school about a case I worked on a few years ago regarding women’s rights to make medical decisions during their pregnancies.  I found her to be quite gracious and not at all the elitist princess she’s been made out to be in the press. Whenever our paths crossed, as they inevitably do in a small town like Tallahassee, she would always greet me warmly, never once mentioning the divorce or troubles in her life.

Crime sceneI’ve become very ambivalent about reading the news stories revealing the latest developments in the case or finding out what happened.  What is a sensational crime story to most of the world feels rather personal to me. The awfulness of the murder and the investigation into the most intimate details of the lives and actions of the suspects and people who were a part of my community is disturbing to me.

I wonder how many other struggles and dramas are happening to people in my world of which I’m not aware.  If you look at the surface of my community things look pretty good for most families.  You don’t see old broken down cars in our synagogue parking lot, people are dressed nicely, I don’t see suspicious bruises or wounds on people, and I’ve not seen any signs that people are going hungry. On Facebook, my friends post pictures of happy families, incredible meals, and awesome vacations.  The illusion of perfect lives can be difficult to see past.  Also, we must respect boundaries.  People often go to great lengths to conceal the imperfections in their lives and would suffer great shame if their secrets became public.

I’ve been a nurse and an attorney too long to believe that what we see on the surface reflects the reality of people’s lives.  I often say that the problems of the world are found sitting in the pews of every synagogue and church in the nation. Being part of a community doesn’t make one magically immune to making terrible mistakes, the difficulties of life, or the dangers of the world, but community can provide us with a place where we can find strength and share those challenges.  Nor do we become immune to the problems of marital discord, addiction, mental illness, or any of the multitude of different forms of human dysfunction because we may come from a privileged background or have been blessed by exceptional talent or a brilliant intellect.  Indeed, privilege can be a trap for some who come to believe that they cannot survive without it.

Police tape backgroundI wish that I could bring this blog post to some kind of wise conclusion where all this makes sense, but my thoughts aren’t there yet.  Instead, I’m left with feelings of dismay and bewilderment, and a sense that this is a situation that no amount of punishment can repair.  Maybe it doesn’t matter to me what the police and the Courts do to those involved in the murder.  Nothing they do will restore life to Dan Markel.  Nothing they do will bring back the father his two liitle boys lost, or the son his parent’s lost, or the brother his siblings lost.  Contemplating this I recall a teaching in the Jewish religious tradition that says: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world.”

Please note that what is written here is offered as a statement of my thoughts as a private citizen and not on behalf of the Tallahassee Jewish community or any entity other than myself.